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November 2nd, 2005 WW Editorial Staff | Letters to the Editor
 

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

11/2/2005

     
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PROTECTION RACKET

I read with fascination the reply by Arts and Culture Editor Kelly Clarke to Kevin Gibson and Monique Siu's letter to the editor in the Oct. 12 WW. I am in the oil and salt business myself and sell to Castagna and other restaurants, as well as have a friendly relationship with Jim Dixon.

My problem with Ms. Clarke's reply is that she states, "In order to avoid any conflicts of interest, Dixon does not sell salt or olive oil to restaurants he reviews for WW." How, precisely, does this avoid conflict of interest? If a restaurant chooses not to do business with Mr. Dixon, then he is free to review them? And if they do choose to buy from him, then they are spared his reviewer's pen? This seems to me to present a rather thorny and obvious conflict of interest.

In a job as influential as restaurant reviewing, the writer and editor owe it to the businesses they review to be above reproach. While Mr. Dixon is entitled to both his opinions and his business endeavors, the integrity of the first is undermined by the nature of the second.

Joe Guth
Provvista Specialty Foods
Northwest Wilson Street

IS DIXON WORTH HIS SALT?

I must admit I am sad to see that WW took a serious hit in the credibility department in relation to your "food critic" Jim Dixon. I know that you all are proud of your Pulitzer Prize this year, but Jim Dixon and Kelly Clarke just took a little shine off your publication's well-deserved reputation.

How can you hire someone that is a food vendor? Restaurants are hard enough businesses to run without needing to "buy" a review from food vendors. Kelly Clarke made you all look even worse by saying that Dixon is not allowed to do reviews of clients, completely missing the point. I have not been to Castagna Restaurant or known anyone associated with it, but it really makes me wonder, how could Jim Dixon fairly review someone that does not use Dixon's product?

Unfortunately, Kelly Clarke was not accurate about Dixon's writing limits, as Dixon does review clients—as pointed out by Phil Stanford in his Oct. 18 Portland Tribune column. Does Kelly Clarke have a list of Jim Dixon's clients? How does Kelly know that Dixon does not write reviews for clients? Either Kelly lied about not knowing about the reviews of Dixon's clients or Dixon had no restriction on who he could review, or Dixon lied to Kelly. The options are limited, and none places WW in good light.

The real question is why are you using Dixon. He may be a fine writer and knowledgable about food, but he has a complete conflict of interest. Dixon needs to go. Being a food critic is a hard job, and much harder if you can be bought for a little salt and some olive oil.

Dan Yates
President, Portland Spirit Cruises
Southeast Carruthers Street

CRYSTAL CLEAR: WW RESTAURANT REVIEWER JIM DIXON RESPONDS

In their recent WW letter to the editor, Kevin Gibson and Monique Siu, the owners of Castagna, implied that the fact that I import and sell salt influenced my review of their restaurant. Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford wrote pretty much the same thing in his column two weeks ago, but went further to imply that other reviews I've written for the paper have also been influenced by whether the restaurant is a customer (see www.portlandtribune.com).

A thick skin is standard issue for a food writer. But given the nature of the allegations, I think WW's readers deserve a few more details.

I've been reviewing restaurants and writing about food as a freelance writer for WW since the early '80s. In my day job, I'm a technical writer and editor for the City of Portland. I started importing and selling olive oil after a trip to Italy in 1999. It was basically an impulsive decision made after spending a morning walking through the olive groves of Alfonso Iaccarino, the chef and owner of Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890, the first Michelin three-star restaurant in Italy.

Iaccarino had just made a deal with shipper DHL that cut the cost of express delivery in half, his olive oil was unbelievably good, and my wife, Judith, suggested I should start importing it. When we got back to Portland, I emailed the restaurant and charged 25 bottles, plus shipping, on my credit card. Two days later they were on my front porch, and I was in the olive-oil business.

Since then, I've imported oil from other producers we've met on subsequent trips to Italy. In 2003, after reading about a Slow Food Award-winning sea salt from Portugal, I tracked down the producers and started importing their flor de sal.

Over the past five years I've sold olive oil or salt to Higgins, Navarre, Gino's, Noble Rot, the Heathman, Carafe, Genoa, clarklewis, ripe, Bastas, Paley's Place, Bluehour, Simpatica Catering, Por Que No, Pazzo, Ken's Artisan Bakery, Apizza Scholls, Gotham Bldg. Tavern, Mark Doxtader (the guy with the wood-fired oven on wheels at the Portland Farmers Market), Great Wine Buys, New Seasons Markets, In Good Taste, the Busy Corner Grocery, SohBet Coffeehouse and Eclectic Market, Dry Hollow Vineyards (in The Dalles), and, most recently, Nostrana.

I sell oil and salt at the Portland Farmers Market once each month, and I also regularly trade with several farmers-market vendors as part of my own "oil-for-food program."

That's my life as a food purveyor. Does it create a conflict of interest for my freelance work for this newspaper?

There's no doubt that the relationships I've established over more than 20 years of writing about food and restaurants have helped my business. Does my role as a restaurant reviewer help my sales? It probably helps get my foot in the door, and, at least for those who agree with my opinions, enhances my credibility when it comes to food.

But the brouhaha over my review of Castagna raises a different question: Does my business relationship, or lack of one, with a restaurant affect my opinion?

More than five years ago, when I sold my first bottle of Don Alfonso extra-virgin olive oil to Cathy Whims (when she was still the chef-owner of Genoa), I told her I could never write about her restaurant in WW again. The same policy applies to all of my customers, even if they've only made a single purchase, even if it's been years since they've bought anything. Once they buy oil or salt, I stop writing about them for WW. I have no qualms about offering my opinion in other food forums like Egullet.com or chowhound.com, but I always provide the context that I'm talking about a customer.

Phil Stanford implied that I gave ripe a glowing review because they were buying olive oil from me. Not true. I wrote the review of ripe's family supper in September 2002. I didn't sell them any olive oil until April 2003. I've never written about ripe's other ventures, clarklewis or the Gotham Bldg. Tavern. (Full disclosure: One family member worked at the Gotham in the coffee-shop era, another now works at clarklewis, but neither was a ripe employee when I was writing the review.)

So what about restaurants that don't buy from me? Did I criticize Castagna's food as underseasoned because they don't use the salt I import? It's true that my review suggested that, in particular, a burger and a steak would've benefited from the flavor-enhancing quality of salt. I'm sure that since I've started selling salt, I've become even more aware that that salting meat before it's cooked is essential to bring out its flavor.

That said, know this: In my kitchen, and almost every restaurant kitchen, pre-salting is done with inexpensive, widely available kosher salt. The salt I import from Portugal, flor de sal (fleur de sel to the French), is too expensive to shower over burgers. It's a salt that's meant to be crumbled over food immediately before eating in order to experience its texture as well as its flavor.

One more thing: I have never tried to sell salt to Castagna.

I like to think local restaurant chefs and owners buy the oil and salt I import for the same reason I use them every day: They make food taste really, really good. But don't take my word for it. Ask them yourself.

All I can do is offer oil and salt, and if a chef decides to buy one or the other, I tell him or her that I won't be writing about their restaurant in WW. Does this undermine the integrity of my opinions? Readers will either trust what I have to say or not. From the feedback I've received over more than 20 years of freelance writing for WW, most seem to trust my opinion, even when they don't agree with it.

That probably won't satisfy everyone. Just as there will always be readers who think I don't know anything about food, there will be others who believe that in calling a steak underseasoned I'm trying to sell salt. I can live with that.

But to keep things as transparent as possible, all of my reviews will henceforth include a disclaimer about my food-related business dealings. Readers can choose for themselves if they want to keep reading or turn the page.

Patricia Unterman, the chef and owner of San Francisco's Hayes Street Grill, has been a restaurant reviewer and food writer for publications like the San Francisco Examiner, Gourmet and Bon Appétit for the past 30 years. Complaints about a conflict of interest are part of her daily life. When asked why she kept writing when her integrity was so frequently questioned, she said, "I always came to it with a kind of passion for eating."

That works for me.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

If I knew nothing about autism, the Jamie Handley article ["Curing Jamie Handley," WW, Oct. 12, 2005] would make me panic. I, too, might search for external causes of a neurological disorder targeting toddlers. What the poorly researched article fails to describe is there are different types of autism on a spectrum. The article focuses on only one developmental profile, in which a young child seems to develop normally. Suddenly, social skills disintegrate, vocabulary disappears, and the child can engage in extremely difficult behaviors such as throwing tantrums and repetitive, compulsive activities. This describes Jamie.

Some children exhibit signs of autism spectrum disorders very early in life. Babies who do not like to be touched, who will not look adults in the eyes, who will stare at a spot on the carpet for hours on end or who don't coo. To say autism starts around 18 months, corresponding to the administration of certain vaccines, is simply incomplete information. I wouldn't blame anyone for panicking if the idea that a child might be born with this disorder was not common knowledge. Why was this fundamental detail ignored?

Despite the opposing viewpoints described, making it sound as if autism always comes on after a child has exhibited typical development shows a clear (and seemingly undereducated) bias towards biomedical philosophies, a bias that Ms. Valdez does not admit.

Some children do not begin life typically.

Not giving your readers access to this information is irresponsible in the face of a rising rate of diagnosis for this already difficult-to-understand disorder.

Cheryl Green
Northeast 13th Avenue

A SKEPTIC, NOT A CRITIC

I write in hopes of clarifying my position on biomedical interventions for children with autism. Rather than being critical, as reported in the story on Jamie Handley ["Curing Jamie Handley," WW, Oct. 12, 2005], I remain skeptical about all treatments for autism that do not have some empirical (research) support. My skepticism applies equally to all unsupported treatments, be they chelation, sensory integration therapy, facilitated communication or secretin injections.

Families of children with autism are just like other families. We all have differing resources: social support, time and money. I counsel all families of children diagnosed in the OHSU Autism Clinic to use their resources wisely and to focus those resources on treatments that have the most empirical support. However, I never counsel families to reject biomedical interventions outright. I fully support ongoing, quality research into the efficacy of chelation and other biomedical interventions. I applaud both the Handleys and the Laidlers (as well as countless other families in Oregon) for continuing to seek treatments that will improve the lives of their children with autism.

Darryn M. Sikora, Ph.D.
Autism Program Director
Child Development & Rehabilitation Center
Oregon Health & Science University

ODYSSEY THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD?

I'm a PTA member, classroom volunteer, neuroscientist, educator, and parent of two boys. And I love stories. In fact, my mother was a storyteller, and I grew up reveling in tales of my own and distant lands.

However, as a PTA member, classroom volunteer, neuroscientist, educator, and parent of two boys, I'm wary of Concordia adjunct professor Marie Wachlin's efforts to promote her Bible in the public schools [Q&A, WW, Oct. 19, 2005]. If she'd like to teach Bible stories as stories, and not as some unique class of unsubstantiated "truth," Noah can probably fit in there next to the Minotaur and Odysseus' great battle with the Cyclops.

But if she's proposing we waste limited class time forcing our kids to swallow wholesale (like Jonah's whale) the peculiar canon of American Christianity, with its overt political ambitions, gay-bashing, and active efforts to undermine evidence-based science education and the separation of church and state, then no thank you. Stories are terrific, but asking curious children to avoid questions and accept without evidence the contents of 2,000-year-old, uninformed political tracts does no one any good.

Also, as Portland's superintendent recently tried to abolish afternoon recess to squeeze in more time for instruction in our underfunded, overcrowded classrooms, adding someone's Bible, of all things, should be the least of our concerns (and Homer tells a better story!).

Bill Griesar
Northeast Cleveland Avenue

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF

Some points for Prof. Marie Wachlin [Q&A, WW, Oct. 19, 2005] to consider:

A. Many children raised by non-Christian parents are excellent, well-behaved students. There are also many kids raised in Christian homes who are troubled and under-achieving. (I should know—I was one!) Children who feel accepted and respected seem to have a better chance in school, regardless of religious belief.

B. The Salem Witch Trials are also part of America's "Christian heritage." Christianity in this country may have spawned great heroes like Martin Luther King, but it also has spawned malevolent personalities like Randall Terry and Rev. Fred Phelps. Should the accomplishments of non-Christians like Carl Sagan and Helen Keller be disregarded to maintain this "Christian heritage"?

C. Intelligent Design is not science. It is anti-science that relies on aggressive marketing and belligerent politics instead of well-scrutinized evidence and peer review to "educate" our youth. It has no more place in our schooling system than does Holocaust Revisionism.

Children need to be taught how to respect others as well as themselves. Prof. Wachlin's responses in the Q&A seem to show more grudging tolerance for non-Christian people than respect.

Mike Birtchet
Southeast Taylor Court

 
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